Saturday, April 07, 2018

Born Today In 1915, Legendary Jazz Singer Billie Holiday

Born Eleanora Fagan today, April 7, in 1915, but better known as Billie Holiday, she was an American jazz musician and singer-songwriter with a career spanning nearly 30 years. Nicknamed "Lady Day" by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills.

After a turbulent childhood, Holiday began singing in nightclubs in Harlem, where she was heard by the producer John Hammond, who commended her voice. She signed a recording contract with Brunswick Records in 1935. Collaborations with Teddy Wilson yielded the hit "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," which became a jazz standard. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Holiday had mainstream success on labels such as Columbia Records and Decca Records. By the late 1940s, however, she was beset with legal troubles and drug abuse. After a short prison sentence, she performed at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, but her reputation deteriorated because of her drug and alcohol problems.

Though she was a successful concert performer throughout the 1950s with two further sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall, Holiday's bad health, coupled with a string of abusive relationships and ongoing drug and alcohol abuse, caused her voice to wither. Her final recordings were met with mixed reaction to her damaged voice but were mild commercial successes. Her final album, Lady in Satin, was released in 1958. Holiday died of cirrhosis on July 17, 1959. A posthumous album, Last Recording, was released following her death.

Much of Holiday's material has been rereleased since her death. She is considered a legendary performer with an ongoing influence on American music. She is the recipient of four Grammy Awards, all of them posthumous awards for Best Historical Album. Holiday herself was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1973. Lady Sings the Blues, a film about her life, starring Diana Ross, was released in 1972. She is the primary character in the play and later the film Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill; the role was originated by Reenie Upchurch in 1986 and was played by Audra McDonald on Broadway and in an HBO film.

The Autostraddle Website reports:

One of the world’s greatest jazz vocalists of all time, the bisexual blues singer had quite a few relationships with women. Holiday had a tragic and difficult childhood and struggled with drug abuse, drinking and abusive relationships with men, and her most storied same-sex relationship was that with actress Tallulah Bankhead (with jazz trombonist Dickie Wells and Holiday at right). They were on and off for a while, and in 1948, Bankhead would come to Holiday’s shows at the Strand Theater after curtain at her play (Private Lives, on Broadway), and Bankhead would tag along on tour whenever she had the time. At one point, Bankhead bailed Holiday out of jail, after she’d been arrested for opium possession. They had a stormy breakup and later exchanged harsh letters regarding the representation of the other in their respective biographies.

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